In 2015, I’m a little surprised that something so vague as “engagement” is used as a serious success metric by agencies for social media marketing programs they run for brand clients.
Likes on Facebook along with more Twitter followers or favorites seems like a shallow way to measure how well a brand has connected with customers.
That’s not to say the metrics shouldn’t be included in the overall success of a program — but don’t highlight it a main component.
In some cases, big brands are paying PR firms and social media agencies big money to run programs that attract and prompt users to engage by liking, following or favoriting.
I have to admit I’m shocked at how much large brand clients are charged for delivering on a metric like engagement (likes and tweets). Yet, there is a good reason for this: brands are desperate to engage their customers in any way they can and the competition for the perception is fierce.
Unless you’ve been asleep like Rip Van Winkle for the past few years, you’re aware of the dramatic growth of social media on the Internet.
For example, between 2005 and 2012, the percentage of American adults on the Internet using a social media platform has grown from 8 to 70 percent. Truly explosive growth.
Back in 2005, Facebook had 5.5 million users and by the end of 2014, it claimed 1.4 billion active monthly users. The growth has been incredible.
So you can see why brands quickly got excited about social media. For the first time, it enables them to directly build a relationship with customers and to get feedback from them.
It allows brands to be more personal and to put a human face on their business. Also, studies have indicated that sales leads that come through social media had a much better chance of converting into actual purchases than traditional advertising.
What’s not to like?
Add to this mix that Google’s algorithms take social media into account (as does Bing’s), so large followings could also improve a brand’s position in search-engine rankings. This is important because appearing even one position higher than a competitor can translate into additional revenue, especially if their rankings are above “the fold” or top half of the computer screen.
And its not just brands that are jumping into the social media pool, celebrities, small businesses and regular people are too.
No wonder someone figured out how to game the system.
Bogus Social Media
Enter the counterfeit social media purveyors. These firms sell fake accounts to Internet stores known as “click farms” where customers of all kinds buy social media influence to boost their social standing.
The best analogy I can think of is a night club. People like groups and if a line is standing outside of a night club it must mean its a popular spot. No matter if no one is actually inside or not.
As a result, these counterfeit social media suppliers can be found all over, but many are commonly located in the developing world. Think countries like India, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Typically small businesses that employ a dozen or so people, counterfeit specialists are experts in creating fake identities that include real sounding names along with photos so it is hard to tell if the person is real or a fake – at least at first glance. The more real the persona, the more detail is required and therefore more expensive it is to buy.
The reason? The process is a little longer to add the additional detail to make the persona seem more real.
I’ll get to that below.
Demand is so great that many counterfeit social media suppliers operate around the clock — pumping out made up Twitter and Facebook accounts. They sell them to digital middle men, aka “click farms.”
Just Google “buy Twitter followers” or “buy Facebook likes” to see how easy it is to buy black market influence from click farms.
You might be surprised … 2,000 Twitter followers for five dollars and 1,000 Facebook likes for $29.99.
Its all for sale.
One can also buy through platforms like Fiverr.com or wait to get solicited on Twitter once you have an account. Click farms often follow Twitter accounts to let you know they’re there.
At least once a week a click farm or two follows my Twitter account.
How it works
The counterfeit social media firms get orders from click farms — the middlemen.
One of the most common orders is for fake Facebook profiles of attractive American women between 20 and 30 years of age. Once a client (click farm/middleman) has received the accounts, he will probably use them to sell Facebook likes to customers looking for an illicit social media boost.
But sometimes the specifications are more exact. A martial arts gym in New York City might want 50 female karate fanatics under the age of 30 or a restaurant in Dallas, Texas might want 200 African-American men between the ages of 25 and 35.
You can order whatever you need.
Once the counterfeiter has the customer’s specifications in hand, the process is simple. Let’s say for example we’re looking for young men with Australian sounding names that live in the United States.
Go to a web site like Fake Name Generator and choose what you want in the specification fields.
What you get is a realistic sounding identity. In this case, Nate Curnow, 24, from Dallas, TX complete with address, mother’s maiden name, birth date, zodiac sign, place of work, height, weight and even blood type.
Next the counterfeiter creates an email account which provides the foundation for Nate’s Facebook account. This get’s fleshed out further with a profile picture usually “scraped” from a dating web site. However, everything is fair game as I’ve even heard of profile pictures being scraped from funeral notices.
Yes, that last part can be low, but counterfeiters don’t care.
Further cementing the illusion, the counterfeiter uses a proxy server to make it seem as though he is accessing the internet from a location in the United States and special software disables the cookies that Facebook (and Twitter) use to track suspicious activity.
To finish it off, the counterfeiter inserts a SIM card into a cell phone. Once the phone is live, the phone number is entered into Curnow’s Facebook profile. A verification code is sent back via text and this is then entered into Facebook.
A new (and fake) Facebook account PVA (phone verified account) has now been set up!
So, how many fake Facebook accounts are there? We don’t really know for sure, but in August 2014, Twitter disclosed in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. In that report it stated that 23 million (8.5 percent) of its 270 million accounts were automated.
So they obviously have a problem. But remember, this phenomenon is not limited to Facebook and Twitter. It extends to Google and Yahoo PVAs too.
Getting back to metrics: Stop Settling for Less
Where I work, I am really happy to say we are very careful about the metrics we use to measure the success of our online marketing programs.
Whether it is a content, influencer or a digital marketing program, we work closely with our clients to determine clear objectives at the outset and then carefully consider success measures that make sense, support the business and can be substantiated.
I like to be able to defend the metrics when asked about them.
Some suggestions include: your brand message pick up by third parties, message pull through, shares, sentiment (positive, neutral, negative), inclusion of links to brand, product or service and endorsements. Also, take a careful look at who is talking about your brand or product and what their audience looks like.
Be careful of soft metrics like engagement. As you’ve just learned, the system can be gamed, is being gamed and will continue to be gamed. I’m not saying not to include it as a metric but make sure it is balanced by more substantial metrics.